Roots

I found myself sitting in the hallway outside of my uncle’s home office the night before I left Los Angeles. The door to the room was propped open. Light spilled into the hallway and leaked across the rug and the parts of the walls.

Inside, my uncle sat at his desk. In one hand, he held the book on which he was concentrating. In the other, a pencil rested between his fingers as he held it up just enough for its end to touch his cheek. He was motionless until, all at once, the pencil would come flying down. A few marks would be made. A few lines would be drawn. Then, just as quickly, the pencil would return to its place.

The door to the guest bedroom further down the hall opened. I stepped out. Pausing briefly to step sideways, I leaned against the wall for a moment before sliding to the ground.

I let out a sigh. Just behind me, some of the light from my uncle’s office rested on my belongings, having been packed and repacked several times over the course of the past month. This time was the last for a while though. It had to be as compact as possible to fit into the back of my car as well as have enough space for two other people and their gear.

A silence returned to the hallway as I thought about the road ahead. The frames of my uncle’s glasses were just visible over the pages he was reading. He flipped a page. Silence again.

Minutes passed. Pages were turned. The pencil made marks. Silence. I began to wonder why I didn’t leave. But something, some impression of a thing, was building up in my stomach.

I knocked on the door frame. The book came down a bit. My uncle looked at me quizzically as I sat with my back against the wall in his hallway.

“You know,” I started, unsure of where I was going exactly, “I don’t think I have many regrets from my time at college.”

I fell silent, trying to figure out what I was trying to say or rather, why. I looked up to see that I had my uncle’s attention. The book remained propped up in his hand, but it hung more limply than it did before.

“I guess I have one or two though.”

He cleared his throat. “What’s that?”

“Well, I suppose that my main regret is that I came into APU like an idiot who just didn’t want to live under your shadow and ran from community when you offered it. I wanted to see if I could do this whole ‘adulting’ thing on my own. I wanted to try and pull myself up by my bootstraps. I think I was partially trained to think that way – to be self-sustaining, to not need anyone. And, well, I missed out on a great resource and relationship with you because of it.”

My uncle set his book down on the desk in front of him before saying: “The thing is, none of us are self-sufficient. We don’t even know how complicated and interconnected our society is because we don’t think about it. I don’t know how many people it took to produce a hamburger on my plate. I don’t know how many countless others it takes for every single activity of my day to happen!”

“Yeah,” I remarked, “I get that intellectually. But at my core, I still live out of a false story where true rugged individualism could be a reality. I never let that lesson to affect me and I guess I have to pay the consequences of that decision.”

Something clicked in my mind at that moment.

“I guess what I’m getting at is I’m sorry for not reaching out – and reaching out more. I’ve treated you like simply a stop on the way somewhere else.”

I paused. “I know it might not mean much now, being the night before I leave and all, but can you forgive me?”

I feel pulled. Pulled to stay and pulled to go. On one hand, culture has time and time again told us of the potential of the open road. The adventures you’ll have. The people you’ll meet.

On the other hand though, I’m been feeling an ache to put down roots somewhere for a while.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove tells the story of his friend Will and his family moving to a new place and attending a church known for taking community seriously. But after a while, Will realized that he’s not satisfied. Meeting with the pastor of the church to discuss his concerns about community, the pastor simply asked Will how long they had been attending, to which he replied a year.

“Then I guess you’ve got about a year’s worth of community,” his pastor said matter-of-factly, “Stay another year and you’ll have two years’ worth. Stay thirty and you might find some of what you’re looking for.”[1]

I was reminded again of the quote from Soong-Chan Rah I had come across in earlier readings where he stated that “Contemporary life is characterized by movement, oftentimes at high speeds, with the absence of any real connection to the world around us.”[2] When we move constantly, onwards and upwards to the next best thing, the world gets blurred. We can see miles of road, but the details and the depth to a place are lost.

American culture has taught us of the superiority of mobility. Out there is always the possibility of a new field, greener than any you’ve encountered so far. But we don’t take enough time to gather more than a surface level nutrition from the one we’re in now.

In an analogous fashion, C. S. Lewis likened his work of Mere Christianity to our desire to stay on the go. We treat our communities the same way Lewis foresaw how some might be tempted to use his book – as the end-all, be-all in life. But, Lewis wrote, Mere Christianity is simply getting a person to walk the halls of the faith. We must commit to one of the house’s many rooms to find that there are warm fires and hot meals, good books and comfortable chairs in which to rest.

In the same way, we must commit to community to begin to grow in a way we might not otherwise. Wilson-Hartgrove remarked that “I wanted to love my neighbor, but I had not stayed in one place long enough to know my neighbor or my neighborhood.”[3] This, of course, is not just an idealized love, but one where person begins to rub shoulders with one another and butt heads as time goes on – learning to live with one another despite our differences because of the reality that of community on which is based. The German theologian Bonhoeffer reminded his audience that:

Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it.[4]

I feel pulled. Pulled because my heart longs for the road and longs for home all at once. It seeks for something impossible – an in-depth community at the speed of sound. And yet, what I may need is to slow down enough to let my roots sink down into the earth between my toes.

It’s happened once. It happened around a table with people who committed to show up for four years and to wrestle with some of life’s recurring questions. When I stopped living how I was living for just enough to let me invest and be invested into. When I didn’t fear living in the shadow of others.

I wonder how they’re doing?

Back in the hallway of my uncle’s house, I waited for my uncle’s response. It was quiet for a moment. One of those wonderful moments where there is a holy stillness of sorts as someone really listens to you and doesn’t simply brush you off.

Then, he spoke. “Of course. Just make sure to stay in touch and call us every once in a while. We’d love to see how you’re doing.”

I thanked him and began to head down the hallway when he called me. I started to turn around.

“Remember,” he said, “Keep in touch.”

“Oh,” I said with a slight smile, “I will.”

 

 

[1] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), 19.

[2] Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009), 148.

[3] Wilson-Hartgrove, 36.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 13.

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The Places Between Us

Simply put, we are creatures of habit. We are going to follow one routine or another. If we don’t make some intentional commitments about what that routine will be, then our life circumstances will dictate it for us […] If you believe that Saint Augustine was right when he prayed to God, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you,” then you’ve got to consider that the only true happiness is the happiness we know in Jesus Christ when we grow in our faith and learn what it means to be mature disciples.[1]

I found myself sitting by the side of the road the other day. I was waiting for the bus, watching people in cars flash on by. Every so often, someone would pass by and glance at the guy on a bench before continuing on their way. But, for the most part, everyone had somewhere to go, somewhere to be, something to do.

Someone coughed. At the far end of the bench was a man dressed in a maroon polo shirt and jeans. He, too, was waiting for a bus. Or, at least, I thought so. His eyes never strayed from the screen of his phone. In his ears were headphones and I swore I could hear what sounded like salsa music. That would probably be me, I thought, if I had remembered to bring my phone. By the time I had reached the stop, I had realized that my phone was sitting on my desk back in my apartment.

I groaned inwardly before deciding that the walk back to my apartment wasn’t worth missing my ride. I shifted my weight as I began to settle into waiting on the side of the road.

The traffic light ticked red. A Lexus stopped in front of the bench, long enough for me to get a look inside the vehicle. The driver was on the phone, his eyes focused on the car in front of him. Behind him, a small child was sitting with his face pressed against the window.

He waved. I waved back. And in another instant, he was gone.

Eventually, the bus turned the corner and began making its way down the street towards my bench. The door opened. I clambered on and found my seat.

On an average day, I might find myself strolling around my college campus, scuttling from one class to another as I made my way through the schedule for the day. On occasion, I would glance up from examining the scuffed tops of my shoes to see whether I had chanced upon a familiar face while on my way. Belonging a small Christian university, my campus almost guarantees such an event at least once while going from point A to B. When such an event would occur, I would wave at my friend or acquaintance momentarily and greet them. In rare events, I might stop to chat and exchange pleasantries before moving on, mentioning that I would hope to see whoever it was soon over coffee or some other college staple.

But come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever once stopped and ignored the marching orders which I have set in front of me to actually make space for my acquaintances. I tell myself it’s because I have commitments and a responsible person always makes them. But late at night when I’m lying in bed, counting the number of stucco peaks in the ceiling to fall asleep, and I’m too tired to deceive myself, I begin to think the real reason is because I’m too comfortable to want to leave what my agenda requires of me.

Agendas are a terrible thing for people like myself. They’re clean-cut. They’re clear. They plot out one event from another without much, if any, overlap. In my own little arrogant way, my agenda affirms that I am the god of my day. I have control over what I do. And, insofar I abide by such a mentality, hell can easily become other people detracting from my sovereignty.

No wonder, then, that C.S. Lewis described hell as an ever-expanding city. In The Great Divorce, Lewis writes:

You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing […] What’s the trouble about this place? Not that the people are quarrelsome—that’s only human nature and was always the same even on Earth. The trouble is they have no Needs.[2]

We like to be the centers of our own universes. Needs remind us of our dependencies. When that’s removed, we become our own gods; gods who don’t want to coexist with others demanding that they abide by their own rules and schedules and lives. When we allow our pride and arrogance to take the precedent over people, the places between us grow wider still.

In a similar manner to how Lewis describes Hell’s residents, when we become increasingly mobile, it’s easy to remove any form of intrusions to our basic way of seeing the world. We’d rather be free to move away from any form of discomfort or inconvenience by jumping into the car for greener pastures. Soong-Chan Rah, in The Next Evangelicalism, points this out:

Contemporary life is characterized by movement, oftentimes at high speeds, with the absence of any real connection to the world around us. Mobility, and the speed of mobility, result in the ability and the power to disregard and disconnect from suffering. There is no space or time for the theology of celebration to intersect with the theology of suffering–there is only motion that dulls the senses.[3]

When we are independent from one another, we tend to want to throw up some walls between us and whoever the “they” are. People tend to be messy creatures. Inefficient. There is no clear-cut formula to dealing with each one.

I think it’s because God intended it that way.

At the same time, when we share in the mobility with others, when we become dependent on some schedule which is independent of our own desires, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Either we could retreat behind a screen as a last attempt to control our space, or we could be present with those who we find ourselves.

I sat in my seat for a good while in silence while I took in my surroundings. Across the bus sat an elderly man. He was dressed in a patterned tan dress shirt, which was complemented by worn black sweatpants and a visor like those which some accountants might wear. Next to him was a walker, presumably his, that collapsed to fit neatly in the aisle. At some point, he noticed that I was examining him and his walker. I looked away, slightly embarrassed that I was caught staring at someone. When I glanced back up, his focus hadn’t shifted.

We both said nothing.

Eventually, the bus came to another stop. A handful of others came and found seats. A drowsy, middle-aged man who seemed to just be getting off his shift as a security guard. An elderly lady carrying bags of groceries. A young man, not unlike myself. Many of them brought something which commanded their attention. All of us said nothing.

I glanced at my watch. Only fifteen minutes had gone by. Across the bus, the elderly man cleared his throat. I looked up. He had turned himself to face me. Still, he remained quiet. It wasn’t until the young man, who seemed to be about my age, shifted from his seat and settled himself next to me that the older gentleman began to speak.

It is here that I believe it appropriate to mention the writer Frederick Buechner who, in musing on the notion of the word “you,” once wrote:

It is possible that the whole miracle of creation is to bridge the immeasurable distance between Creator and Creature with that one small word, and every time human beings use it to bridge the gap between one another, something of that miracle happens again.[4]

The elderly man looked at both of us and remarked, “Both of you aren’t regulars on this bus, huh?”

I glanced at the man next to me. He did likewise. Suddenly, it was as if the bus, which had been placed on mute, had the volume restored in an instant.

We both responded simultaneously, stumbling over each other.

“Yes, I-”

“-How did you know?”

The older man smirked, “I ride this bus every day.”

I was incredulous. “Well, why?”

“Why the hell not?” He stated, matter-of-factly, as if taking the bus was the only real option for transportation. “We old timers need to get around in style somehow.”

He extended his hand. “Name’s George, by the way.”

“Hi, George. Pleased to meet you. I’m Tim.”

“I’m Eli.”

George gazed intently at Eli, the man who had shifted his seat earlier. “What’re you two doing here anyway?”

And with that, the three of us launched into a conversation which lasted the remainder of the hour. I reached my stop and thanked George for his insights and thoughts about life. It’s funny how similar, yet how different, people are.

Most of the time, if we care to slow down enough and pay attention, we might just realize that most of us just want to be heard. And truth be told, I’m starting to wonder why conversations with random strangers aren’t more common.

I guess what I’m asking is how can we claim to want to love our neighbor when we don’t know who or what they are? 

We are creatures of habit. We don’t like uncomfortable situations. We’d rather stay where we are and have others come to us. But if nobody came to us, and we didn’t go to anyone else, I’d figure that we’d find ourselves eventually in a Hell of Lewis’ imagining.

Instead, Christ showed us another way. He came to us by leaving his place of comfort for the sake of humanity. Perhaps then, we should divorce ourselves from our agendas from time to time to go and do likewise more often, too.

 

[1] Andrew C. Thompson, The Means of Grace: Traditioned Practice in Today’s World. (Franklin: Seedbed Publishing, 2015), 103.

[2] C.S. Lewis, “The Great Divorce,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 472-473.

[3] Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downer’s Grove: IVP Books, 2009), 148.

[4] Frederick Buechner, “You,” in Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 128.